Brave new world of transplants

July 31, 1992

In 1990, 2,200 Americans died while awaiting organ transplants. This year, 600 Americans will perish because of a shortage of transplantable hearts. And last year in Uruguay, in a case that underscored the poverty of the perpetrators as much as the dire need for human organs, 20 people were accused of illegally selling their own kidneys.

Doctors and potential transplant recipients worldwide have decried the organ shortage. That's why the recent baboon-to-human liver transplant in Pittsburgh has drawn international attention.

The patient, a 35-year-old man dying from recurrences of the liver-destroying hepatitis B virus, was given the liver of a baboon. It is the first baboon-to-human liver transplant ever, and the first animal-to-human transplant, or "xenograft," since the infant "Baby Fae" received a baboon heart in 1984. She died three weeks after the surgery, when she developed an antibody to the baboon's blood. About 30 other xenografts, all unsuccessful, have been attempted since 1963.

If the Pittsburgh operation turns out to be more than an experiment and actually prolongs the man's life for a significant time, it could mean that baboon organs will be given to people awaiting transplants. (Baboons are seen as a good organ source because they are not an endangered species and, like humans, they are primates.)

This brave new world of xenografting is viewed with predictable outrage by animal rights groups already alarmed over the use of animals in medical research and product testing. These groups say humans err in placing themselves above other creatures and have no moral right to harm animals in the name of scientific advancement.

Indeed, the history of experimentation on animals is full of gruesome tales. But hospital ethics boards and federal regulations have helped make testing more humane. Even as staunch an animal-rights advocate as Peter Singer, author of "Animal Liberation," has written that experimentation need not stop if it serves a "direct and urgent purpose."

Humans themselves are, of course, another potential source of transplantable organs. Surgeon General Antonia Novello says 25,000 Americans who die each year could donate their organs, but relatively few do, mainly because of the lack of a good public education campaign about the issue.

For now, baboon organs are being touted for transplants. We believe -- and potential transplant recipients no doubt agree -- that life-saving techniques like the one just tried in Pittsburgh do serve a "direct and urgent purpose." We might also echo Mr. Singer's call that these tests and experiments be done only when necessary, and with as much respect for the animals as possible.

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